Shimla, April 22 : First-time Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur has made strengthening the mountain state's weak infrastructure -- road, rail and air -- a priority as this would not only boost national security but also increase tourist flows.
Himachal Pradesh shares a 260 km border with China.
Five-time legislator Thakur, who rose through the ranks, said he has apprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman about the importance of laying the Pathankot-Leh rail line that will ensure round-the-year movement of troops to forward areas where China has already strengthened its road and rail networks on its side.
Thankur, who assumed office on December 27, 2017, talked about the completion of the tunnel beneath the majestic Rohtang Pass, one of the country's strategically most important infrastructure projects, within a year.
The 8.8-km, horseshoe-shaped tunnel is an engineering marvel whose excavation was completed last October.
"I met the Defence Minister in this regard soon after assuming office.
Issues relating to expediting its work were discussed. She assured that they will try to get it constructed within a year," Thakur told IANS in an interview.
The Border Roads Organisation (BRO), a wing of the Defence Ministry is constructing the tunnel.
It was earlier scheduled to be opened for traffic by 2015.
Once ready, the Rohtang tunnel will be a boon for the cold deserts of Lahaul Valley, where over 20,000 people remain cut off from the rest of India in winter owing to the closure of the Rohtang Pass, a major attraction for both domestic and foreign tourists and located 52 km from Manali.
Besides reducing road distance by approximately 46 km and saving travel time of about four hours, the tunnel will open up new vistas of trade and tourism and generate jobs for the locals.
On another important infrastructure project, Thakur said: "Seeing the sensitivity along the (Pakistan) border, the Centre is keen to set up another bigger airbase at a strategic location close to the existing one in Pathankot."
He said expansion of the existing airport at Gaggal near Kangra town, some 225 km from the state capital, could be an alternative to the Pathankot airbase in Punjab, which was attacked by Pakistani terrorists in 2016.
"Kangra airport would also be used for defence purposes -- for landing fighter and big aircraft.
Moreover, this is at a safe distance from the border and strategically important in view of the increasing tension with the neighbouring countries."
Thakur, who has discussed this with Sitharaman, said a central government team visited the Gaggal airport a few days ago to study the feasibility of its expansion.
"The airport expansion means acquisition of over 570 acres land and we will provide this.
If the central government gives its nod, it will boost our tourism industry too."
The state's youngest Chief Minister said popular tourist resorts Shimla, Manali, Narkanda, Kasauli, Kalpa and Dharamsala are chock-a-block with the tourists.
"Our focus is now on developing virgin destinations for which there is a budgetary provision of Rs 50 crore for the first time in the state's history."
On mining, he said his government has the Himachal Pradesh Minor Minerals (Concession) and Minerals (Prevention of Illegal Mining Transportation and Storage) Rules, 2015, with an aim to simplify procedural requirements and punish offenders.
While there is a provision of two years of jail for illegal mining, the fine has been enhanced 20 times -- from Rs 25,000 to Rs 500,000.
In fact, illegal mining is even being cited as one of the reasons for the Beas river tragedy in which 24 students of a Hyderabad engineering college lost lives in 2014.
On the economic front, this tiny hill state is facing one of its worst financial crises, with loan liability at Rs 46,502 crore.
"The situation is such that the state can't manage affairs without loans.
We will try to limit it by taking continuous measures, including austerity. At the same time we will see that development is not affected," he said.
"Our focus is to strengthen our major income-generation sources like opting for scientific mining, rationalising hydropower generation, tapping tourism in unexplored areas and promoting horticulture."
"We are going to offer some concessions and incentives to independent power producers to attract investments.
Likewise, we are roping in private investments in tourism," Thakur said.
Hydropower generation as well as horticulture and tourism are major contributors to the economy of Himachal Pradesh.
Not believing in having disputes with neighbours, he added: "We will try to resolve all our issues -- (we are) seeking the release of 7.19 per cent share of the state, which runs into crores of rupees, on account of BBMB projects, along with arrears, from Punjab and Haryana without getting into any sort of confrontation."
In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld Himachal's claim in three Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) hydro projects and directed compensation for denial of the state's legitimate share from November 1, 1966, but the state has not got its due so far.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)